Not to say the Wellesley Health Department and Wellesley Public Schools System haven’t been working closely all along, but the COVID-19 pandemic has tightened that relationship over the summer and it will only become more so as the school year gets underway. Increasingly, members of the two groups, along with their boards, have been making special guest appearances at each other’s meetings and forming working groups in an effort to plan for a safe school reopening.
“There’s definitely a lot of cross collaboration going on, which is terrific” School Committee Chair Linda Chow said, during the Aug. 13 School Committee meeting.
The Board of Health last week held several public meetings—we plowed through 4.5 hours worth—leading up to the big School Committee meeting. At that meeting, members’ voices cracked and eyes welled up as they unanimously approved a hybrid reopening model of remote and in-person learning. The Board of Health approved the school reopening plan (a bit before the 48-minute mark on Aug. 13) at its meeting earlier that day.
School Committee member Sharon Gray acknowledged that “the perfect solution is not going to be right around the corner.” But she felt comfortable with a reopening plan that she said will rely on “everybody protecting everybody.”
The other intertwined hot topics involving the two departments and corresponding boards were metrics and testing.
Metrics: Discussion advanced on creating a public dashboard of metrics and thresholds regarding what might signal a retraction or expansion of in-person classes. The Board of Health’s Marcia Testa Simonson emphasized that any such dashboard will need to include easily digestible data.
The town is interested in both macro and micro metrics, those that can give it a read on the entire community (sewage testing has even been discussed), school community, individual schools, and even beyond Wellesley given that most school faculty/staff don’t live in town (90% is the number that keeps getting mentioned at meetings). Board of Health member Linda Oliver Grape said: “Over the next several weeks we need to get more from the macro to the micro, but somewhere in between.”
The town also anticipates a spike in cases as colleges test returning students, and that shouldn’t necessarily have a big impact on Wellesley Public School metrics.
Simonson raised the importance of working with the school system to lay out standard operating procedures for different scenarios, such as how to handle it if a kid in a specific class tests positive for COVID-19.
Wellesley Public Schools Supt. David Lussier stressed that the school system needs to look to a handful of metrics beyond the average daily cases per 100,000 residents that the state has touted. Among other useful data could be the positivity rate on tests, he said.
Testing: Plans continued to develop for a possible ambitious testing pilot of both symptomatic (highest priority, to help exclude those who just have the sniffles and not COVID-19) and asymptomatic public school students, faculty and staff.
Broad Institute’s Jesse Boehm gave an update at both the Aug. 13 Board of Health and School Committee (26 minutes in) meetings, expressing optimism that many operational questions seem to have been addressed. Big questions remaining could boil down more to financing if the testing program otherwise seems doable. The town might need to decide as soon as this week if it wants to start some sort of fundraising campaign, he said. Boehm tried to reassure the Health Department that such a program could be run without further stretching its resources, aside from relying on it for contact tracing, which it already does well (Newton-Wellesley Hospital could possibly play a role in quick turnaround testing).
Supt. Lussier maintained his support, expressing excitement and gratefulness over the feasibility work on a program that could help inform decision making based on richer data than would otherwise be accessible. “For us, testing is an essential component of what a return to school will look like,” he said.
Boehm concluded that ,”We all believe the return to school is going to safe even without testing given that we have a great plan in place, great PPE in place, great decision making in place. We shouldn’t come away with the impression that without testing we’ve got nothing… The concept is, with the addition of testing could we learn more, and would that learning be useful for the entire Commonwealth?”
There are a seemingly endless number of moving parts involved in all of this, with state guidance always emerging (or not) at key points along the way. Meanwhile, members of the school and health teams are also meeting with peers from other communities to learn from them and put together cohesive plans if appropriate (for example, the testing effort is being explored in conjunction with Brookline, Chelsea, Revere, and Somerville—communities that represent different segments of the COVID-19 infection spectrum).